In late January, AT&T was sued in federal court for allegedly acting as an agent of the government in enabling the National Security Agency to spy on citizens without court authorization. Now, some U.S. lawmakers are trying to find out what role Verizon Communications and Sprint Nextel played as well.
Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., want to know not only what the telephone companies were asked to do and when they were asked to do it, but also by whom. In a Feb. 9 letter to the CEOs of AT&T, Verizon and Sprint Nextel, the senators requested the names of government officials that sought cooperation in conducting surveillance without a court order. They also wanted the dates of the requests and copies of any written documents.
The federal Wiretap Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which were enacted to protect U.S. citizens constitutional right to privacy, generally require either a court order or a written certification from a top official at the Department of Justice stating that no court order is required. Kennedy and Feingold asked the phone companies for detailed descriptions of any conversations they had in which anyone from the government said such requirements were not necessary.
The congressmen are looking for information going back to Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, after which the NSA reportedly began intercepting without warrants phone calls and e-mail going out of the United States. They asked the phone companies how many communications and individuals were under surveillance and when.
In a class action suit filed Jan. 31, the Electronic Frontier Foundation accused AT&T of playing an instrumental role in "a secret and illegal government program to intercept and analyze vast quantities of Americans telephone and Internet communications." The carrier violated customers First Amendment right to free speech and Fourth Amendment right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and it also broke several wiretap and telecommunications laws, EFF charged.
The lawsuit also alleges that in addition to collaborating on the warrantless eavesdropping, AT&T gave NSA direct access to records stored in several of its massive databases, which include personally identifiable customer information and call detail records.
AT&T declined to comment publicly on the warrantless eavesdropping program because it cannot comment on matters of national security, according to Michael Balmoris, company spokesperson in Washington.
Kennedy and Feingold asked the CEOs of all three companies to explain in detail any instances when government officials told them that they are prohibited from answering the questions the senators are asking.